The property of future generations

For future generations.

It is the tagline and ultimate justification for heritage organisations all over the English-speaking world. It speaks to a sense of curatorship, of responsibility, of paternalism. Sarah May has pointed out that it is a loaded term; we do not talk about the future in abstract, in the unknown; we talk about the generations who will follow us. To behave recklessly is to let down our children. This, somehow, makes us believe that we know what they will need, centuries in the future, and are required to provide it.

So what are we leaving these unknown future children? A vast amount, it turns out. As heritage spreads to cover an ever wider and more varied ground, there are more and more places, buildings, objects and collections sucked into the vacuum of the heritage label, there to be suspended in airless changelessness – for future generations.

This philosophy of care and curation begs us to be thoughtful, to consider the implications of our actions in the long term. It helps to prevent destructive change for the sake of short-term economic goals, and motivates us to think unselfishly about what is good and worthy of protection in our world. It ties in with ideas of sustainability and ecological sensibility, fighting the rapid modern exploitation of resources which will leave no hope for the future of the planet.

So far, so good. But is all heritage a resource which is automatically valuable enough to warrant the resources we expend to keep it?

When it is your job as an archaeologist or historian to attempt to recover traces of the past and to find details which may illuminate lost lives, the urge to save as much as possible and thereby rescue your future colleagues from your own frustrations is understandable. Particularly so as industrialisation and technology reach ever new heights, and things are introduced, accepted as part of everyday life, and discarded into obsolescence ever faster: there is an exponentially increasing volume of records and artefacts which may, perhaps, give a future scholar (and their eagerly listening public*) a fascinating new insight into our lives, and ever-increasing ways to record, preserve and share this records. It is being human, feeling nostalgia for our lived experiences and hating that once-familiar objects are now ‘historical’. Awareness of irreversible change brings home an awareness of our own temporality, mortality.

At the same time, paradoxically, that we want to preserve all the facets of our own experiences, we seek to leave no trace on our environment. We know that all that we have, as cultures, as the human race, comes from the products of change. Everything was once new and maybe even radical – from churches to technologies to clothing fashions – and will, at some inevitable point in the future, be destroyed beyond all recollection. But  as Holtorf has said, we still feel that what has been ‘handed down’ to us, magnanimously, by the actions of our forebears must be preserved intact and untouched – that no change we make can possibly improve upon their achievements.

It is familiar to have moments of grief or frustration at the loss of we would now think of as ‘heritage’. How could they let that happen? Why would they destroy, alter, hide, a precious legacy of earlier works?

Because they were working to their own values and standards. Change is inevitable, even necessary sometimes. While we may now disagree with the tastes or values of the architect or landowner who made drastic changes, they would not have acted has they not felt they were improving their heritage – often in a way that would be a benefit to future generations, or perhaps simply to themselves.

In some cases they were correct. What would now be unacceptable amounts of alteration to pre-Reformation monasteries have bequeathed us with some of the most beautiful Romantic landscapes in Britain – which have extra ‘value‘ because they have changed, not despite. Brutalism, once one of the most unpopular architectural styles in Europe, is now coming back into fashion with architects and conservationists. Do we still want to knock it down, or should we keep it?

So why are we so wary of change? Why do we feel that our ancestors had so much that was better to offer the world? We want to keep all that is new and all that is old, even though the new can only be born of changes to the old. So, because we cannot justify why we want to keep something that is useless, obsolete, because we like it, as professionals, we claim that future generations demand of us that we keep it, lest they step from their TARDISes and howl How could you let that happpen? at the next meeting of Historic England’s planning board.

We do not treat our own history as our property. We are merely trustees, unable to touch our own work. It appears to be new, the self-sacrificing idea that we must avoid changing or even using pieces of our history, because we do not have the right to alter them, even through wear and tear. Who, then, will have that right? When do future generations become now? When does tomorrow come?

We do not know what interventions will be valued by future tastes, and which will be derided. We have no idea whether future generations will be grateful for the extraordinary amount of stuff they have been handed, or whether they will be frustrated at our inability to prioritise. In short, we have no idea what they want at all.

In an effort to supply our successors with all they could possibly want, are we placing an impossible burden on them? Are we imposing difficult decisions on them because we cannot bring ourselves to take the responsibility? And why do they have more right to decide what happens to our history than we do ourselves?


*All scholarship has an eagerly listening public awaiting its findings. Right? Right??

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